standing Westerly school bus

PROVIDENCE — The school building project proposed by the Westerly School Committee could receive a reimbursement rate of up to 52.5 percent if the project meets the bonus incentives it was designed to, a state Department of Education spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Confirmation of the reimbursement rate follows the state Education Department’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education’s approval Tuesday night of the Westerly school district’s $74.28 million school construction project. Five other projects proposed in other districts in the state were also approved.

The $74.28 million figure includes the Westerly school district’s five-year capital-improvement project plan, which local officials do not plan to pay for with a bond issue proposed to pay for the project. When the cost of the capital projects is subtracted, it brings the project cost to be paid with bond funds to $71.4 million. The capital projects would have to be accomplished in order for the district to qualify for the maximum reimbursement of 52.5 percent, as would the district’s commitment to build a new school. Other health and safety initiatives and educational enhancements would also have to be accomplished to qualify for the incentives and the maximum reimbursement rate. Half the cost of the capital projects also qualify for the maximum reimbursement, despite not being planned for payment through the bond.

“The maximum that Westerly could receive is 52.5 percent. That is based on the current proposal and meeting the requirements for our bonus incentives. Compliance with the incentives is verified at the completion of a project, when the district submits for reimbursement,” Megan Geoghegan, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department, said in a statement e-mailed to The Sun.

Plans call for spending about $37.3 million to build a new two-story State Street School for the district’s students in Grades 3 to 5 and razing the current State Street School building. Dunn’s Corners School would be renovated for $13.5 million, Springbrook School for $7 million, Westerly High School’s Ward Hall for $8.87 million and Babcock Hall for $3.87 million. District-wide security repairs that are also planned would cost $2.2 million.

Members of the School Committee’s School Building Subcommittee were pleased by the latest state-level approval.

“We are thrilled to have this important milestone behind us. We would like to thank the members of the building committee for their dedication to this project and the students of Westerly. This is an unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on a 50 percent reimbursement from the state to complete work we all acknowledge needs to be done,” said Gina Fuller, co-chairwoman of the School Building Subcommittee.

The Town Council is expected to continue its analysis of the project’s cost and potential impact on municipal finances and debt load during a special meeting Tuesday. The time of the meeting was unclear as of Wednesday.

The council must decide, in the coming weeks, on whether to send the project to a referendum for consideration by the town’s voters. A June 3 vote by the council is under consideration.

During a School Building Subcommittee meeting Tuesday, officials wrestled with how to analyze the cost of the project in light of the exact reimbursement level being contingent on a state Education Department review of the project after construction is substantially complete. The minimum state reimbursement rate for the approved project is 35 percent.

At a 50 percent reimbursement rate, the project, including interest, is estimated to cost local taxpayers $56.7 million.

Officials said they would work to present the financial impact of the project and its anticipated effect on the tax rate based on a few different potential reimbursement rates. “The project that goes to the voters has to have a fiscal impact statement so that when the taxes do go up, it’s within the ballpark of what we expected,” Town Council President Christopher Duhamel said.

The council must also consider the project in the context of the town’s other financial demands, including the annual town and schools operating budgets, a $15 million road improvement bond approved by voters in 2018, and an anticipated $5 million sewer bond, said Duhamel, who attended the meeting along with Town Manager J. Mark Rooney and Finance Director Dyann Baker.

The project is expected to cause an increase in the annual tax levy by more than the state cap of 4 percent in two or three different years. Exceeding the cap would require approval by the state.

“The project will result in a tax increase and the town may need to raise taxes above 4 percent in more than one year of the project to cover the regular budget, road bond, and school bond. We are hopeful the Town Council will move the full project to voters because we believe the voters will be willing to support a small increase in their taxes to have better schools, just as they were willing to approve a road bond,” Fuller said.

Reimbursement from the state would come from the $250 million school repair bond approved by the state’s voters in November. David DeQuattro, managing principal with RGB Architects, the Providence firm hired by the School Committee to develop the project plans, said Westerly’s project was one of six from a field of 20 to make it to through the state Education Department’s Stage 2 approval consideration level. “Only six passed to go to May. Of those six you are the only large one, so it’s fantastic news for Westerly because you’re the first to get a bite of this apple,” DeQuattro said.

In addition to educational benefits to students, Jack Armstrong, a member of the building subcommittee, said the project would provide a cross-generational boost.

“High-quality schools are an economic development tool. They are an attraction for people to come and live in our town and take advantage of our education and bring new, young families to the community,” Armstrong said.

Steven Morrone, principal of Dunn’s Corners Elementary School and a member of the building subcommittee, asked the Town Council to put the project forward to let voters decide on it. As principal of one of the town’s three elementary schools, Morrone said he talks often with parents whose children attend the schools.

“They want to invest in our community. At some point we have to make a decision on our future and think about the educational impact that we’re going to have. I think we need to decide to send this to the voters and let every single person, that wants to, vote for the future of Westerly,” Morrone said.

Duhamel, who served on the school building committees that guided construction of Westerly Middle School as well as one that developed plans for work at Westerly High School, said he is working to lead the Town Council through an important process.

“I’m not trying to trip anything up. I’m trying to give an honest review,” Duhamel said.

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